Human behavior can help prevent dog bites

dvm360dvm360 March 2024
Volume 55
Issue 3
Pages: 48

The upcoming Dog Bite Prevention Week is an opportunity to promote awareness about lowering the risk

Ilona Didkovska /

Ilona Didkovska /

Data on dog bites are admittedly squishy. However, it does appear that the number of dog bites—including significant bites—is on the rise. That number has risen even faster than the number of dogs now in homes; today, 53% of all American homes have at least 1 dog.1 That means there are more dogs in homes than children (40.2%).2

The total cost of dog bite–related insurance claims in the US increased from $882 million in 2021 to $1.13 billion in 2022. Arguably, some of this increase is explained by the cost of hospital care and/or the litigious nature of our society, but it is clear that, looking through any lens, something is happening.3

For decades, the American Veterinary Medical Association and its assorted partners (including this author) have worked on communicating strategies for dog bite prevention. These efforts include a week to promote education. The second full week in April is National Dog Bite Prevention Week.4 Simultaneously, in recent years Fear Free has worked to minimize the fear, anxiety, and stress of dogs in clinics and homes.5-7

Certainly, an effort is being made to reduce the frequency of dog bites. It begins with what we all learned at a young age: “Ask (the dog’s handler’s) permission before you pet a dog you don’t know.” Great advice, but if the needle is now moving in the wrong direction, might we be missing something?

Although it is right to ask the dog’s owner, we have not considered “asking the dog.” How often in practice has the owner said, “Fido is just having a bad day,” when you know that this must be how the dog responds frequently, and that he does so every time he has been to the office?

People often either make excuses for their dogs, whom they want to be social, or they do not recognize canine signaling, even in their own dogs. Although we are hardwired to understand some of what dogs are telling us (after all, we coevolved with dogs), they can clearly read us better than we can understand what they are trying to say. Even hurried veterinary professionals may misread a dog, and certainly the public does this all day long.8-10

A dog standing stiffly and looking the other way, that does not want attention from a stranger, is not necessarily going to respond with a bite, although that is conceivable. However, how fair is it to dogs that we approach because we can?

There is even a day to promote hugging dogs. April 10 is National Hug Your Dog Day. Not being primates, dogs are not hardwired to hug. Some dogs love hugs as they equate hugs with attention, which they crave. Other dogs learn to tolerate the hugs, though they do not really enjoy them. Still other dogs may respond with a definitive “don’t hug me,” especially if it is a stranger (most likely a child) or if the dog is in pain—and at least some of these dogs may bite.11,12

I suggest we pay better attention to what dogs are saying. The STOPP acronym—Stop, Talk, Observe, Plan, Pet—can be used as a guide.7

Consent training has been a trend for several years. The notion that we ask the dog falls right into line with minimizing bites.13

It seems obvious why we do need to reduce the frequency of dog bites, particularly those requiring a hospital stay or emergency department or urgent care visit. Some reasons are as follows:

  • A dog that bites can land in a shelter and be euthanized.
  • Dog bites are always traumatic to the victim but may also be so to the dog.
  • There is a financial cost in terms of homeowners’ coverage.
  • There is a cost in terms of clinic insurance.
  • The public perception of specific dog breeds and dogs in general suffers.

There are other explanations as to why injury-causing bites occur:8-10,14

  • Dogs are not properly socialized.
  • Aversive training techniques are used.
  • Dogs may have a biting history.
  • Family member(s) may abuse the dog.
  • Mismanagement may be involved (such as keeping a dog tethered or relegating the dog to the garage).

Newer on the list are no-kill shelters, which take in dogs with a biting history and “retrain” them using aversive methods. Are they truly retraining or merely moderating behavior for a time? Using aversive training gets the dirty work done quickly, albeit without truly altering the dog’s mindset, not to mention the humane concerns about using electronic collars.15

The good news is that dog ownership continues to increase in disadvantaged communities. However, there are socioeconomic challenges and a lack of education about dog training and welfare. There also may be veterinary and dog training deserts in these places.16

From 2011 to 2021, 468 deaths occurred in the US because of dog bites (an average = 43 deaths per year). The annual number of US deaths ranged from 31 (2016) to 81 (2021).17 This percentage rise is scary, and a red flag.

As a result, some suggest there is an epidemic of dog bites. Although even 1 bite fatality is too many, and the bite numbers appear to be on the rise, by comparison there are about 85 accidents involving forklifts per year,18 and the number of deaths due to dog bites does not come close to the number of gun murders, which reached nearly 21,000 in the United States in 2021.19

However, once bitten, children are more likely to suffer a fear of dogs, called cynophobia, which is the most common phobia in children and estimated to affect 9% of children by age 12 years.20 Bottom line: Nearly all dog bites are preventable. What we are doing today makes sense but clearly is not enough. We need to do more.

Steve Dale, CABC, writes for veterinary professionals and pet owners, hosts 2 national radio programs, and has appeared on TV shows, including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is on the dvm360 Editorial Advisory Board as well as the boards of the Human Animal Bond Association and EveryCat Foundation. He appears at conferences around the world.


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  2. 2. Korhonen V. U.S. family households with children, by family type 1970 to 2022. Statista. November 3, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.,households%20with%20their%20own%20children
  3. 3. Dog-related injuries cost insurers more than $1 billion in 2022. Insurance Journal. April 12, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.,to%20%241.13%20billion%20in%202022
  4. 4. Dog bite prevention. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  5. 5. Taking the “pet” out of “petrified.” Fear Free. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  6. 6. If pets could talk, they’d talk about us. Fear Free Happy Homes. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  7. 7. Fear Free: ideas to lower dog bites. Steve Dale CABC. October 1, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.
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  11. 11. National Hug Your Dog Day isn’t the best idea. Steve Dale CABC. April 6, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  12. 12. Bekoff M, Dale S. The best way to avoid dog bites. Psychology Today. Published online April 10, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  13. 13. Rogers N. The importance of consent behaviors for veterinary procedures. IAABC Foundation Journal. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  14. 14. Understanding dog bite-related fatalities (DBRFs). National Canine Research Council. 2011. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  15. 15. At what cost is saving dogs acceptable. Steve Dale CABC. February 1, 2019. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  16. 16. Megna M. Pet ownership statistics 2024. Forbes Advisor. Updated January 25, 2024. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  17. 17. QuickStats: number of deaths resulting from being bitten or struck by a dog,* by sex —National Vital Statistics System, United States, 2011-2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2023;72(36):999. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7236a6
  18. 18. Forklift accident statistics. Safety in Numbers. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  19. 19. Gramlich J. What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S. Pew Research Center. April 26, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  20. 20. Berrick A. 10 things you can do to help your child overcome their fear of dogs. The Cynophobia Clinic. Accessed February 5, 2024.,of%20the%20most%20common%20types
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